Ready or not
My grandfather had been visiting me in my dreams lately. Always the same dream: Toby and I playing hide and seek in a vast, deliciously green garden under a delightfully blue sky. The garden we played in was covered in little red poppies and we were enclosed in a circle of giant, lofty trees with branches that waved cheerfully down to us. The aroma of summer was almost palpable. To me, it was paradise. To my little brother Toby, it was the perfect place for adventure.
The dream always began with me hiding on Toby as he counted to ten up against the largest oak tree. No matter how hard I tried to hide, he would always find me. Toby would gleefully shriek: "I found you, Sophie! I found you!" and I'd see his grinning face peer around the tree I was crouched behind. I'd grin back and congratulate him before beginning to count to ten myself. I'd hear his footsteps as he sped away and the rustle of leaves as he pushed his way through the bushes to find the perfect hiding spot.
"TEN!" I'd yell. "Ready or not, here I come!" I'd begin to creep through the grass, softly tip-toeing my way towards the bushes. I could just make out the top of Toby's golden curls as he peered out over the bushes, scanning the area for any sign of me. As I crept nearer, I'd feel a tap on my shoulder.
Turning around, I'd be facing my grandfather. Despite the fact my grandfather was weak, frail and unable to recognise his family on the eve of his death, he would always visit me here as the strong, smiling grandfather of my childhood. He smiled down at me with his usual friendly grin before moving past me towards Toby.
He would take Toby by the hand and say something to him in a low voice that I was too far away to hear. Then, he'd begin to walk away, towards the edge of the field where a little white gate would appear, with Toby in tow. Beyond the gate there seemed to be nothing but grass for miles and miles.
"Hey, Grandad, wait for me!" I'd yell, desperately trying to follow them, but my legs wouldn't move. Despite my best efforts, my legs would remain firmly attached to the grass.
"It's not your time, Sophie," My grandad would call, without looking back. "Toby has to come with me for a little while. We'll see you when it's your time."
No matter how loud I yelled or how much I cried, Grandad and Toby kept walking away until I woke up, covered in a cold sweat, my eyes blurred with tears.
I'd been having this dream every night for three months straight, since the 18th of May. That's the day it happened. The day my brother Toby was in an accident.
The details of that day are engraved in my mind forever. I was sitting at the dining table, trying to muster up some motivation to study for the history test I would be taking the next day, but it was proving very difficult to achieve with the glorious summer sun streaming in the window and the joyous shrieks of Toby as he kicked a ball around the garden. It was one of those perfect summer days, where the sun was shining but it wasn't too hot.
The facts of World War II blurred in front of me as I yawned for what felt like the hundredth time that afternoon. I was just about to give up (telling myself that I'd study it before class tomorrow) when I heard a squeal of breaks, a cut-off yell and a heart-wrenching crack.
My heart began to thud painfully hard against my chest as I stood up from the table. An icy fear slid up my spine as the sudden silence engulfed me. I was too petrified to dare to peek out the window. Ten seconds later, the neighbourhood erupted with sounds.
"Oh no, oh no, oh no! Please God, help us!"
"Stay calm, we have to stay calm, nobody panic!"
"The driver's unconscious, leave him! Someone help the boy!"
As the last sentence sunk in, the icy fear I felt turned into hysteria. I bolted from the room into the hall and swung open the front door. The scene that met my eyes was unforgettable. Bile stung the back of my throat as I looked from the hysterical neighbours, to the small dent on the bumper of a small red car, parked in the middle of the road, to finally the limp body sprawled on the ground. My little brother Toby. He had just turned five the week before.
My brain wasn't able to make the connection between this lifeless thing in front of me and my brother. His eyes were closed. The only piece of evidence that proved he was in the crash was a small trickle of blood that oozed out of a small cut on his forehead.
He's going to be fine, he's going to be fine, he's going to be fine.
That sentence circled around my head again and again and again. I stayed standing where I was, even when my mother drove into the driveway, laden with shopping bags. Her smiling face, usually perfectly made up, collapsed into agony as she saw him lying lifelessly in front of her. She dropped the shopping bags, ran over to him and fell to her knees, throwing herself on top of her only son, screaming. I'd never seen my mother cry before. It scared me to see her lose control like that.
"Come on, girl, let's get you inside," a neighbour and friend of my mother's, Crystal Hathaway, led me into her house. She sat me down in a large armchair and pressed a mug of hot chocolate into my hand. She stayed sitting beside me. She didn’t try and talk to me. She knew that I wasn’t able to speak to her anyway. She just held my hand and prayed.
He's going to be fine, he's going to be fine, he's going to be fine.
I watched the ambulance arrive. I watched them as they checked Toby for a pulse, checked if he was breathing.
He's going to be ok, he's going to be ok, please let him be ok.
I watched one of the paramedics take out a defibrillator. For ten minutes straight I watched them as they worked tirelessly over his lifeless body. My mother's agonised shrieking never ceased. I was surprised at how calm I felt. Looking back, I now know I was in shock.
I stared at the paramedic as he tried once again to jolt life back into my brother. Ten more minutes flew by. I saw him glance up at the other paramedics. A slight shake of his head told me all that I needed to know. Bile stung my throat again as I ran to the bathroom to vomit.
He's going to be ok, please God, let him be ok, please, please, please.
The rest of the day is a blur of tears, phone calls and trips to the hospital. At twenty seven minutes past six that evening, my little brother Toby was pronounced dead, due to a head injury that caused severe brain damage. My mother collapsed on the ground crying. My father stood there shaking his head, tears rolling down his face, desperately trying to avoid the truth. I just stood behind them, overcome with shock. It felt as if everything around me was happening to someone else, as if I was watching this scene through the eyes of someone else.
That feeling of detachment never left me. I could never comprehend that Toby had died. It didn't make sense to me, because when I went home that evening and sat in the sitting room, Toby sat beside me. That was the first time I saw him after he died.
When I pointed him out to my mother, she shouted at me to stop torturing her. Dad just stared blankly at where I was pointing, then gazed at me with an agonised expression. "Don't pretend, Sophie," he whispered, as he walked out of the room.
The funeral was heart-breaking. Toby's body was carried in a white coffin along with his favourite toys and teddy bears. Mum hadn't been able to speak, so dad choked out a few sentences about his beautiful son, taken too soon, always remembered. I recited a poem I had written about him. Everyone cried as I read it, except Toby who was sitting cross legged in the church aisle grinning up at me. Nobody paid attention to him, all eyes were either fixated on me or buried in tissues.
That's when I realised that I was the only one who could see him. As I finished reciting my poem, I sat back down in my seat and spent the remainder of the mass making up a story in my head to tell Toby later, to distract myself from the sobs and sniffing around me.
The worst part for me was when Toby's coffin was lowered into his grave. I began to question what I was seeing. Was I seeing some sort of apparition or spirit? Or was I simply seeing my brother? Had everyone around me made a massive mistake? Was Toby alive? The questions somehow seemed too big for me. Yeah, I was fifteen, but I felt like I needed an adult to help me. Except nobody believed me. I returned to that usual detached feeling; it made it all easier to deal with.
Toby grinned at me as he peered out from behind the tombstone. It was an unsettling sight: my brother standing behind his own grave. I beckoned at him to stand beside me and when he did, I began to stroke his soft blonde curls. Some of the mourners gathered gave me some funny, questioning looks. A few "the poor girl" phrases circled around me as people tutted and sighed at the injustice in the world.
Eventually they returned to saying their prayers. I began to play a quiet game of eye-spy with Toby. It was a game I usually hated playing but Toby loved it. Sure enough, his large, electric blue eyes lit up with excitement. "Eye spy with my little eye, something beginning with ........ G!" He shrieked, jumping up and down. I smiled down at him and started guessing.
My mother caught my eye and the smile slid off my face as she stared at me. "What are you doing?" She whispered, tears glistening in her eyes, threatening to spill over. I decided to just say it, there was no point being dishonest. "Playing eye-spy with Toby," I replied, innocently. Her eyes widened in shock and she shook her head. "Sophie please," she begged, closing her eyes. "Don't say that." She turned away, sobbing silently into her hands. Dad noticed and he wrapped her into his arms. He beckoned at me to join them but I shook my head. "I can't," I whispered, "I'm playing eye-spy with Toby." I gestured to Toby who was sitting in front of me, pulling at the grass. Dad glanced down at the ground where I was pointing, then stared back up at me with his worried brown eyes. "Soph, he's not there," he whispered, choking on the last word. He tried to say something else but couldn't get the words out, so he turned away.
As the weeks rolled into months, everything I had known about my life began to change. Mum started to drink heavily and soon the clink of a wine bottle against a glass became daily ritual. Dad spent a lot of time cooped up in his office. He threw himself into his writing to distract himself from his horrifying reality. Despite the fact he had numerous manuscripts that he had slaved over for years, Dad still had nothing published. When mum was told to take time off from work because she kept spontaneously bursting into tears in front of potential clients, money became very tight. I watched as a wedge developed between my parents.
Maybe I would have cared more if they hadn’t started getting angry me. Dad claimed I needed to see a counsellor because Toby was gone and I claimed he was still alive. Mum just drunkenly roared that I was trying to kill her, as she gulped back yet another glass of wine. I never gave into their cries of frustration or pleas for understanding. Instead, I remained defiant. I boldly declared my certainty of Toby's presence and refused to listen to their proclamations of 'He's gone, Sophie, he's not coming back!'
I plunged myself deeper and deeper into my own world where Toby and I could play for hours. As you may have already guessed, my new outlook on the world resulted in the loss of my group of friends. I scared all of them away from me with my Toby-is-alive speeches. Even my best friend Jade, whom I had been friends with since kindergarten, deserted me after she witnessed me speaking to Toby on numerous occasions. Of course, to her it looked like I was talking to myself, but she didn’t understand. Nobody did.
Eventually, even the teachers stopped giving me pitying looks, and instead averted their eyes when they passed me on the corridors. I became isolated from the real world. My one companion was my brother Toby, who never left my side.
© Copyright 2017 Emily Burke. All rights reserved.
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